Military history

19
Christmas in the German Way

The argument about breaking out of the Kessel in the second half of December also overlooked one curiously important psychological factor. Christmas was coming. No formation in the Wehrmacht was more preoccupied with the subject than the beleaguered Sixth Army. The quite extraordinary efforts devoted to its observance in bunkers below the steppe hardly indicated an impatience to break out. Lethargy from malnutrition combined with escapist daydreaming no doubt played a part, and probably so did the ‘Fortress’ mentality which Hitler helped to cultivate. But none of these entirely explain the almost obsessive emotional focus which the prospect of Christmas held for those trapped so far from home.

Preparations began well before Hoth’s panzer divisions advanced north to the Myshkova river, and never seem to have slackened, even when soldiers became excited by the sound of approaching gunfire. From quite early in the month, men started to put aside tiny amounts of food, not in preparation for a breakout across the snow, but for a Christmas feast or for gifts. A unit in 297th Infantry Division slaughtered a packhorse early so as to make ‘horse sausage’ as Christmas presents. Advent crowns were fashioned from tawny steppe grass instead of evergreen, and little Christmas trees were carved out of wood in desperate attempts to make it ‘just like at home’.

The sentimentality was by no means restricted to soldiers. General Edler von Daniels decorated his newly dug bunker with a Christmas tree and underneath a cradle with a snapshot of his ‘Kesselbaby’, born soon after their encirclement. He wrote to his young wife describing his plans to celebrate Christmas Eve ‘in the German way, although in far-off Russia’. The military group had clearly become the surrogate family. ‘Each man sought to bring a little joy to another,’ he wrote after visiting his men in their bunkers. ‘It was really uplifting to experience this true comradeship of the front line.’ One festive banner proclaimed ‘Comradeship through Blood and Iron’, which, however appropriate to the circumstances, rather missed the message of Christmas.

One person who certainly did not miss the message was Kurt Reuber, the doctor in the 16th Panzer Division. The thirty-six-year-old Reuber, a theologian and friend of Albert Schweitzer, was also a gifted amateur artist. He converted his bunker in the steppe north-west of Stalingrad into a studio and began to draw on the back of a captured Russian map – the only large piece of paper to be found. This work, which today hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church in Berlin, is the ‘Fortress Madonna’, an embracing, protective, almost womb-like mother and child, joined with the words of St John the Evangelist: ‘Light, Life, Love’. When the drawing was finished, Reuber pinned it up in the bunker. Everyone who entered, halted and stared. Many began to cry. To Reuber’s slight embarrassment – no artist could have been more modest about his own gifts – his bunker became something of a shrine.

There can be little doubt about the genuine and spontaneous generosity of that Christmas. A lieutenant gave out the last of his cigarettes, writing paper and bread as presents for his men. ‘I myself had nothing,’ he wrote home, ‘and yet it was one of my most beautiful Christmases and I will never forget it.’ As well as giving their cigarette ration, men even gave their bread, which they sorely needed. Others laboriously carved equipment racks for each other.

On Christmas Eve, Reuber’s pianist battalion commander gave his last bottle of sparkling wine to the soldiers in the sickbay, but just after all the mugs were filled, four bombs exploded outside. Everyone flung themselves to the floor, spilling all the Sekt. The medical officer grabbed his first-aid bag and ran from the bunker to see to the casualties – one killed and three wounded. The dead man had been singing the Christmas carol ‘O du fröhliche’. The incident, not surprisingly, put an end to their celebrations. In any case, both the 16th Panzer and the 6oth Motorized Infantry Division soon found themselves under full attack in the early hours of Christmas morning.

The traditional, and favourite, song that night was ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’, which soldiers sang ‘with husky voices’ in bunkers by the light of hoarded candle stubs. There were many stifled sobs as men thought of their families at home. General Strecker was clearly moved when he made a tour of front-line positions. ‘It is a “Stille Nacht” amid the turmoil of war… A Christmas that shows the true brotherhood of soldiers.’ Visits by senior officers were also appreciated for their accompanying benefits. An NCO in a panzer division recorded that ‘the divisional commander gave us a swig from his bottle and a bar of chocolate’.

In positions which were not attacked, men crowded into a bunker which had a wireless to hear ‘the Christmas broadcast of Grossdeutsche Rundfunk’. To their astonishment, they heard a voice announce: ‘This is Stalingrad!’, answered by a choir singing ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, supposedly on the Volga front. Some men accepted the deception as necessary in the circumstances, others were deeply angered. They felt it was tricking their families and the German people as a whole. Goebbels had already proclaimed that this should be a ‘German Christmas’, a definition intended to convey notions of duty and austerity, and perhaps already a way of preparing the nation for news of the tragedy of Stalingrad.

At seven o’clock on Christmas morning, the Sixth Army war diary recorded: ‘No supply flights arrived in the last forty-eight hours [a slight exaggeration]. Supplies and fuel coming to an end.’ Later that day, Paulus sent a warning signal to Army Group Don to be passed back to General Zeitzler. ‘If we do not receive increased rates of supplies in the next few days, we must expect a greatly increased death rate through exhaustion.’

Although they realized that the snowstorms of the previous day must have hindered flying, they had not been informed that Badanov’s tanks had stormed on to Tatsinskaya airfield the previous morning. Manstein’s headquarters did not even pass on the news that the Soviet counter-attack with four armies against Hoth’s panzer divisions on the Myshkova river had been launched. When 108 tons of supplies finally arrived on 26 December, Sixth Army headquarters discovered that they had been sent ten tons of sweets for Christmas, but no fuel.

Most men, when they had the opportunity, sat apart to write a Christmas letter home in which they expressed their longing. ‘In our hearts we all keep hoping’, wrote a doctor with the 44th Infantry Division, ‘that everything will change.’ He spoke for many, but the better-informed commander-in-chief of the Sixth Army was not among them. ‘Christmas naturally was not very joyful,’ Paulus wrote to his wife a few days later. ‘At such moments, festivities are better avoided… One should not, I believe, expect too much from luck.’

Not surprisingly, the contrast between German and Russian letters home during the Christmas period becomes even more marked than usual. While German letters tended to be sentimental, aching for home and family, the Russian letters that have survived clearly reveal an inexorable logic that the Motherland took priority. ‘Darling!’ wrote a soldier to his wife on Christmas Eve. ‘We are pushing the serpents back to where they came from. Our successful advance brings our next meeting closer.’ ‘Hello Mariya,’ wrote a soldier called Kolya. ‘I’ve been fighting here for three months defending our beautiful [deleted by censor]. We have started pressing the enemy strongly. Now we have encircled the Germans. Every week a few thousand are taken prisoner and several thousand are destroyed on the field of battle. There are just the most stubborn SS soldiers left. They have fortified themselves in bunkers and shoot from them. And now I’m going to blow up one of those bunkers. Goodbye. Kolya.’

The temperature on Christmas Day fell to minus twenty-five degrees. The water in shell holes, however deep, was frozen solid. Flurries of snow hid much of the squalor in the balkas. Chaplains held field mass or communion in the snow to the sound of tarpaulins and tent canvas flapping and cracking in the wind, with half circles of men round a makeshift altar. In some cases, spiritual comfort and ideological justification became confused, as when Christian Germany was contrasted with godless Russia.

Even within the Kessel, Christmas did not prove entirely a season of goodwill. Dr Renoldi, the Sixth Army’s surgeon-general, forbade the evacuation by air of frostbite casualties, on the grounds that their injuries might have been self-inflicted to avoid combat. And worst of all, virtually no food, apart from some rotting corn from the Stalingrad grain elevator, had been given to the 3,500 Russian prisoners of war in the camps at Voroponovo and Gumrak, because they did not feature on any ration strength. This partly bureaucratic atrocity led to a death rate of twenty a day by Christmas, and it soon escalated dramatically. The quartermaster responsible for feeding them claimed that typhus was the cause, but when an officer from Sixth Army headquarters asked whether there had been deaths from undernourishment, he was evasive. ‘After reflecting for a moment, he denied it,’ wrote the officer. ‘I knew what he meant. Among our troops one was beginning to see similar things.’ But linking their fate with that of German soldiers was a worse evasion. The inmates had no choice – they could not surrender. Even when desperate prisoners began to resort to cannibalism, nothing was done to improve their conditions, because that meant ‘taking food from German soldiers’.

Christmas night was ‘a beautiful starry night’ and the temperature fell even further. Fighting, however, continued the next morning in the north-eastern sector of the Kessel defended by 16th Panzer Division and 60th Motorized Infantry Division. ‘Thus a dozen of our units’, reported the latter’s divisional chaplain, ‘were sent out to counterattack in icy winds and thirty-five degrees of frost.’ The two divisions, despite the terrible conditions and shortages of ammunition, managed to destroy some seventy tanks.

On that same morning of 26 December, Paulus sent another signal to Manstein, which began: ‘Bloody losses, cold and insufficient supplies have reduced fighting strength of divisions severely.’ He warned that if the Russians brought back their forces fighting Hoth’s divisions, and redeployed them against the Sixth Army, ‘it would not be possible to withstand them for long’.

An unexpected opportunity then arose. General Hube, the commander of XIV Panzer Corps, received an order to fly out of the Kessel on 28 December to Manstein’s headquarters at Novocherkassk. An aircraft would take him on to East Prussia to receive the Swords to his Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves from the Führer in person. Paulus told Schmidt to give him ‘all the necessary documents’ on all matters from fuel levels to shortages of medical equipment. The hopes of generals and staff officers leaped at the news of his visit to Rastenburg. Hube, the blunt, one-armed veteran, was one of the few generals whom the Führer respected. They still could not believe ‘that Hitler would abandon the Sixth Army’.

Hitler had no doubt convinced himself that he was doing everything to save the Sixth Army, but his grasp of reality had not improved. That day his headquarters signalled to Army Group Don, promising that in spite of the bad transport situation, it would be reinforced with ‘372 tanks and assault guns’. Manstein knew that this was wishful thinking.

In the city of Stalingrad, meanwhile, the remnants of Seydlitz’s divisions were on the defensive. They had to conserve ammunition to repel attacks. They sheltered deep in cellars and bunkers, for warmth as well as safety from the Soviet artillery. ‘There they sit like hairy savages in stone-age caves,’ wrote Grossman, ‘devouring horseflesh in smoke and gloom, amidst the ruins of a beautiful city that they have destroyed.’

The phrase ‘strong enemy storm troop activity’ appeared frequently in the Sixth Army war diary. Hans Urban, a twenty-eight-year-old police-station sergeant from Darmstadt, serving with the Hessian 389th Infantry Division, later provided a detailed report of this fighting in northern Stalingrad at the end of December.

The enemy used to attack at dawn and at dusk, after a heavy artillery and mortar preparation. If they captured two or three bunkers from us, we would try to get them back later. On 30 December, after many of these attacks, I was ordered to take my rapid-fire group forward. My nine men with their machine-guns were able to hold off the next attack by about 300 men from Spartakovka. The twenty infantrymen left on this sector were so exhausted from all the attacks that they could not offer much help. Most were ready to abandon their positions. I had with my two machine-guns no field of fire. The enemy were able to make use of the terrain and the ruins. We had to let the Russians get to within twenty yards before opening rapid fire. At least twenty-two were left dead in front of our positions. The surviving Russians tried to flush us out with grenades. The Russians attacked again on the same sector at daybreak on New Year’s morning with three companies. It’s hard to make an accurate estimate because they were shooting from holes in the ground, from behind collapsed walls or piles of rubble. We got them in a cross-fire from the two machine-guns, and they suffered heavy casualties. A mortar-man was hit, and although I’d never trained with the weapon, we were able to use their own ammunition against them. After it was over, we were so weak and exhausted and there were so many dead lying around in the open frozen stiff, that we could not even bury our own comrades.

Paulus, in contrast to his strongly pessimistic signals to Army Group Don and the letter to his wife, signed a stirring New Year message to the Sixth Army: ‘Our will for victory is unbroken and the New Year will certainly bring our release! When this will be, I cannot yet say. The Führer has, however, never gone back on his word, and this time will be no different.’

Thanks to Hitler’s insistence on time zones, the Russian New Year arrived two hours earlier than the German. General Edler von Daniels’s card game of ‘Doppelknopf’ was interrupted at ten o’clock by ‘a powerful firework display’, as the Soviet besiegers fired in their ‘New Year greeting’.

Daniels appears to have been in a good mood at this time. He had just been promoted to Lieutenant-General and awarded the Knight’s Cross. Then, as a New Year’s present from Paulus, he unexpectedly received a bottle of Veuve-Cliquot ‘Schampus’. Several of the Stalingrad generals still seemed to be almost more preoccupied with decorations and promotions than with the fate of the Sixth Army.

When German midnight arrived, only star shells were fired. High-explosive rounds could not be wasted. The very last bottles were opened in the Kessel for the toast: ‘Prosit Neujahr!’ Soviet divisions, on the other hand, suffered few restrictions on ammunition and alcohol. ‘Celebrating the New Year was good,’ wrote Viktor Barsov, in the marine infantry. ‘I drank 250 grams of vodka that night. The food wasn’t bad. In the morning to avoid a headache I drank 200 grams more.’

German soldiers tried to make light of their misfortunes, with the idea that everything would change for the better with the passing of the old year. ‘Dear Parents, I’m all right,’ wrote one soldier. ‘Unfortunately, I again have to go on sentry tonight. I hope that in this New Year of 1943, I won’t have to survive as many disappointments as in 1942.’

An almost obsessive optimism was produced by Hitler’s New Year message to Paulus and the Sixth Army. Only the more sceptical spotted that the text did not constitute a firm guarantee. ‘In the name of the whole German people, I send you and your valiant army the heartiest good wishes for the New Year. The hardness of your perilous position is known to me. The heroic stand of your troops has my highest respect. You and your soldiers, however, should enter the New Year with the unshakeable confidence that I and the whole German Wehrmacht will do everything in our power to relieve the defenders of Stalingrad and that with your staunchness will come the most glorious feat in the history of German arms. Adolf Hitler.’

Mein Führer!’ Paulus replied immediately. ‘Your confident words on the New Year were greeted here with great enthusiasm. We will justify your trust. You can be certain that we – from the oldest general to the youngest grenadier – will hold out, inspired with a fanatical will, and contribute our share to final victory. Paulus.’ New Year letters from many soldiers in the Kessel reflected a new mood of determination. ‘We’re not letting our spirits sink, instead we believe in the word of the Führer,’ wrote a captain. ‘We are maintaining a firm trust in the Führer, unshakeable until final victory,’ wrote an ΝCO. ‘The Führer knows our worries and needs,’ wrote a soldier, ‘he will always – and I’m certain of this – try to help us as quickly as possible.’ Even a sceptical general like Strecker seems to have been affected. ‘New hope arises,’ he wrote, ‘and there is some optimism about the present and immediate future.’

Paulus, on the other hand, was concerned at this time by the growing success of Soviet propaganda. The 7th Department at Don Front headquarters in charge of ‘operational propaganda’ had followed up their identification of 44th Infantry Division and General Edler von Daniels’s 376th Infantry Division as the formations on which they should concentrate their efforts.

Early on the morning of 3 January, Paulus went to the Austrian 44th Infantry Division, ‘following radio broadcasts by prisoners from the 44th Infantry Division’. They had spoken on the shortages of food and ammunition and about the heavy casualties. ‘The commander-in-chief,’ stated the Sixth Army report, ‘wanted warnings to be given about the consequences of partaking in such broadcasts. Any soldiers who did so should realize that their names would be known, and they would face court martial.’ During Paulus’s meeting with General Deboi, the divisional commander, there was yet another ‘heavy attack with tanks’.

The very next morning, Paulus visited the Romanian commander in the ‘Fortress area’, whose soldiers had suffered serious frostbite casualties owing to clothing shortages, ‘above all boots, trousers and socks’. The rising number of desertions prompted Paulus to conclude that: ‘Counter-propaganda is necessary against Russian leaflets printed in Romanian.’

Battalions and companies were so weak that they had become meaningless designations. Out of over 150,000 soldiers left in the Kessel, less than one in five were front-line troops. Many companies were down to a dozen men fit for duty. Fragments of units were therefore increasingly amalgamated into battle groups. The surviving panzer grenadiers of Sergeant-Major Wallrawe’s company found themselves mixed ‘with Luftwaffe companies and Cossack platoons’ and sent to defend a position near Karpovka. It was an unfortunate spot to be sent to. A glance at the map indicated that the ‘nose’ which formed the south-western extremity of the Kessel would be the Russians’ first objective when they decided to finish off the Sixth Army.

There were a few days of comparatively mild, wet weather at the very start of the year. Russian soldiers hated the thaw. ‘I don’t like the weather in Stalingrad’, wrote Barsov in the marine infantry. ‘It changes often and this makes the rifles go rusty. When it becomes warmer, the snow starts to fall. Everything becomes moist. Valenki[felt snow-boots] become soaking wet and we don’t get much chance to dry things.’ He and his comrades were, no doubt, happier on 5 January, when the temperature dropped to minus thirty-five degrees.

Soviet forces adopted a deliberate tactic to exploit their superiority in winter equipment. ‘The Russians began with probing attacks’, wrote a Luftwaffe liaison officer. ‘If they breached the line, none of our men were in a position to dig new fire trenches. The men were physically too weak owing to lack of food, and the ground was frozen rock-hard.’ Stranded on the open steppe, even more would die. On 6 January, Paulus signalled to General Zeitzler: ‘Army starving and frozen, have no ammunition and cannot move tanks any more.’ The same day, Hitler awarded General Schmidt the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

Now that the fate of the Sixth Army was certain, Soviet journalists were brought to Don Front headquarters at Zavarykino. A delegation of Soviet writers came down from the capital to visit the 173rd Rifle Division, which had been raised from the Kievsky district of Moscow, and contained many intellectuals. ‘From the command post of 65th Army, writers Aleksandr Korneychuk and Wanda Vasilevskaya’ watched the division attack the Kazachy Kurgan, a Tartar burial mound on the north-west of the Kessel.

Even before Hoth’s rescue attempt had been crushed on the Myshkova river, Stalin was harrying his generals to produce plans for the annihilation of the Sixth Army. On the morning of 19 December, he had telephoned Voronov, the Stavka representative overseeing Operation Little Saturn, and told him to move to Don Front headquarters. Voronov installed himself close to Rokossovsky’s ‘residenz’, spread across the adjoining villages of Zavarykino and Medvedevo, where the accommodation for each general, or department, consisted of a ‘five-walled’ peasant izba, a log cabin with a dividing wall down the middle. American Willys staff cars, with Soviet markings, lurched in and out of the frozen ruts, taking generals off on tours of inspection to galvanize subordinate commanders in their efforts.

Voronov rapidly assembled a planning staff to study the options. He insisted, despite Stalin’s insistence on having the results in two days, on first inspecting the terrain for himself. His visit to 57th Army headquarters took place on a clear day. He observed a group of Junkers transports that appeared overhead at about 9,000 feet without a fighter escort. The Russian anti-aircraft batteries grouped in the area opened fire too late; Soviet fighters also arrived too late to intercept. Not a single Junkers had been brought down. Voronov was even more furious when he discovered how little coordination there was between ground observers, anti-aircraft batteries and the fighter squadrons. The major-general in charge of anti-aircraft operations was terrorized into feverish activity.

Back at Zavarykino, Voronov again examined the figures. In spite of the strong German resistance put up early in December, Colonel I. V. Vinogradov, the chief intelligence officer of the Don Front, had not greatly revised his estimate of soldiers trapped in the Kessel. He now put them at 86,000, when asked to be precise. It was a figure which was to embarrass Red Army intelligence, especially when their NKVD rivals made sarcastic allusions later.

The draft plan for Operation Ring was at last ready on 27 December, and flown to Moscow. The next day Voronov was told to rewrite it. Stalin insisted that the first phase of the attack, focused on the Karpovka-Marinovka nose in the south-west, should come from the north-west and be coordinated with another operation at the opposite corner of the Kessel, cutting off the factory district of Stalingrad and the northern suburbs.

Stalin observed at a meeting of the State Defence Committee that the rivalry between Yeremenko, the commander of the Stalingrad Front, and Rokossovsky, the commander of the Don Front, had to be resolved before Operation Ring began. ‘Whom shall we make responsible for the final liquidation of the enemy?’ he asked. Somebody mentioned Rokossovsky. Stalin asked Zhukov what he thought.

‘Yeremenko will be very hurt’, Zhukov observed.

‘We are not high-school girls,’ Stalin retorted. ‘We are Bolsheviks and we must put worthwhile leaders in command.’ Zhukov was left to pass on the unwelcome news to Yeremenko.

Rokossovsky, the commander-in-chief responsible for the coup de grâce on the Sixth Army, was allowed 47 divisions, 5,610 field guns and heavy mortars and 169 tanks. This force of 218,000 men was supported by 300 aircraft. But Stalin’s impatience again built up, just as he was planning a strike against the Hungarian Second Army. To his fury, he was told that transport difficulties had slowed the delivery of reinforcements, supplies and ammunition. Voronov demanded yet another delay of four days. Stalin’s sarcasm was bitter. ‘You’ll be sitting around there until the Germans take you and Rokossovsky prisoners!’ With great reluctance, he agreed to the new date of 10 January.

German officers outside the Kessel had been wondering what would happen next. General Fiebig, the commander of VIII Air Corps, wondered after a long conversation with Richthofen: ‘Why don’t the Russians crush the Kessel like a ripe fruit?’ Red Army officers on the Don Front were also surprised about the delay, and wondered how long it would be before they received their orders to attack. Voronov, however, had received another call from Moscow now telling him that an ultimatum to the Sixth Army must be prepared.

Voronov, in that first week of January 1943, wrote a draft addressed personally to Paulus. Constant calls from Moscow, with Stalin’s amendments, were necessary. When finally approved, it was translated at Don Front headquarters by ‘German anti-fascists from the group headed by Walter Ulbricht’. Meanwhile, NKVD representatives and Colonel Vinogradov of Red Army intelligence, displaying their usual rivalry, had begun to search for suitable officers to act as truce envoys. In the end, a compromise was reached. Late in the afternoon of 7 January, Major Aleksandr Mikhailovich Smyslov of army intelligence and Captain Nikolay Dmitrevich Dyatlenko of the NKVD, were selected to go together. Vinogradov, when interviewing Dyatlenko, suddenly asked: ‘Are you a khokhol?’ Khokhol, or ‘tufty’, was the insulting term for a Ukrainian, because Russians were often rude about their traditional style of haircut.

‘No, Comrade Colonel,’ replied Dyatlenko stiffly. ‘I’m a Ukrainian.’

‘So you’re just like a Russian,’ Vinogradov laughed. ‘Well done. You are a suitable representative of the Red Army to meet the fascists.’

Smyslov and Dyatlenko were then briefed by General Malinin, the chief-of-staff, and by Voronov himself. One might have thought that Stalin was looking over their shoulder from the way both generals kept asking the envoys whether they fully understood the instructions from Moscow. In fact nobody really had a clear idea of the rules and ritual of a truce envoy. Dyatlenko admitted that his only knowledge came from the play Field Marshal Kutuzov by Solovyov.

‘So lads,’ said Voronov, ‘will you fulfil your mission?’

‘We will fulfil it, Comrade Colonel-General!’ they chanted as one.

Malinin then ordered the front quartermaster-in-chief to kit out the two officers in the smartest uniforms available. The Germans had to be impressed. The quartermaster promised to have them ‘dressed like bridegrooms’, and winked ‘like a magician’ at the two envoys. With Voronov’s backing, he had every general’s aide at front headquarters on parade in his department. He ordered them all to strip, so that Dyatlenko and Smyslov could try on their uniforms and boots. The two envoys soon found themselves in a Willys staff car, with Colonel Vinogradov. Their destination, they were told, was Kotluban station on 24th Army’s sector.

Russian troops in the area had received the order to cease firing from dusk. Then, all through the night, Red Army loudspeakers broadcast a message prepared by Ulbricht’s anti-fascists, telling the Germans to expect truce envoys. By the next dawn, 8 January, firing had ceased. Smyslov and Dyatlenko were allotted a tall corporal, equipped with a white flag and a three-note trumpet. ‘It was unusually quiet on the snow-covered plain’ when they advanced to the very front trenches. The corporal blew the trumpet call: ‘Attention! Attention! Everybody listen!’ They advanced for about a hundred yards, then firing broke out. The three men were forced to dive for cover behind a low rampart made in the snow by Russian reconnaissance groups for night observation. The ‘bridegroom’ uniforms soon looked less smart; they also offered little protection from the intense cold.

When the firing died away, Smyslov and Dyatlenko rose to their feet and cautiously recommenced their advance. The corporal also stood up, waving the flag and blowing his trumpet. Once again, the Germans opened fire, but without shooting directly at them. It was clear that they wanted to force the truce envoys to retreat. After several more attempts, a furious Vinogradov sent a message forward to call off this dangerous version of grandmother’s footsteps.*

Smyslov and Dyatlenko returned to Front headquarters to report, ashamed at the failure of their mission. ‘Why are your noses hanging down, Comrades?’ asked Voronov. ‘The situation is such that it is not we who should ask them to accept our proposals, but vice versa. So we’ll give them some more fire, and they will themselves come begging for them.’ During that night, Russian aircraft flew over German positions, dropping leaflets printed with the ultimatum to Paulus, and a message addressed to ‘Deutsche Offiziere, Unteroffiziere und Mannschaften!’, both signed by Voronov and Rokossovsky. To underline the message, ‘they supported the words with bombs’. Red Army radio stations also broadcast the text, read by Erich Weinert, on the frequencies most used by the Germans, and a number of German wireless operators acknowledged. The leaflets were certainly read. A captain in the 305th Infantry Division admitted after capture that officers as well as soldiers had read the Soviet leaflets in secret, despite the penalties, ‘because forbidden fruit is sweet’. Sometimes they showed leaflets in Russian to a trusty Hiwi and asked him to translate. ‘Everyone knew about the ultimatum,’ he said.

Smyslov and Dyatlenko had slept for only a couple of hours at front headquarters when they were woken at around midnight. A staff car was outside waiting for them by the time they had dressed in their old uniforms (the ADCs had immediately reclaimed their property). When they reached the intelligence department, they discovered that Colonel Vinogradov had been promoted to Major-General and that they had been awarded the Order of the Red Star. Vinogradov, having joked that he had been promoted ‘for all the trousers he had worn out during his service’, added that Smyslov and Dyatlenko would receive an even more important medal if they managed to carry out their mission at a second attempt.

The two envoys were told to climb into a staff car with Vinogradov and the officer appointed to replace him as chief of intelligence. As they drove through the night again, the two newly promoted generals sang songs and ‘kept interrupting each other with generals’ anecdotes’. (Although Dyatlenko’s respectful account does not say that they were drunk, they certainly appear to have been celebrating their promotions.) The rhythm of the songs was continually broken, as the staff car lurched in and out of huge potholes along the frozen dirt roads. It was a long journey round the southern side of the Kessel, crossing the Don westwards, then back across again at Kalach to the sector covered by 21st Army. Shortly before dawn, they reached the headquarters of the 96th Rifle Division, a few miles to the west of Marinovka.

Rather like condemned prisoners, Smyslov and Dyatlenko were given breakfast, boosted ‘by a Narkom’s [government minister’s] ration’. Vinogradov put a stop to a second helping, and told them to get ready. They then suddenly realized that they had handed the white flag back to the quartermaster at front headquarters. A new one had to be made, using one of the divisional commander’s sheets nailed crudely to a branch from an acacia.

The staff car drove them to the front line and parked in a balka, from where the party proceeded forwards on foot. Smyslov and Dyatlenko were joined by an elderly warrant officer, with a trumpet, who introduced himself as: ‘Commander of the musical platoon Siderov’. A lieutenant also stepped forward and offered to escort them through the minefields – ‘because my life is not worth as much as yours,’ he explained.

The three envoys put on camouflage suits just behind the front trenches, then set off across the white expanse which blurred into a heavy mist. Some two dozen humps of snow ahead were frozen bodies. General Vinogradov and the other two generals climbed on to a burnt-out Russian tank to watch proceedings. Siderov blew the trumpet. The call ‘Attention! Attention!’ sounded, in Dyatlenko’s ears, more like ‘The Last Post’.

As they came closer to the German lines, they saw figures moving. It looked as if the front-line bunkers and trenches were being reinforced. Siderov waved the flag and blew the trumpet again urgently. ‘What do you want?’ a warrant officer called.

‘We are truce envoys from the commander of the Red Army,’ Dyatlenko shouted back in German. ‘We are on our way to your commander-in-chief with a message. We ask you to receive us according to international law.’

‘Come here then,’ he said. Several more heads popped up and guns were levelled at them. Dyatlenko refused to advance until officers were called. Both sides became nervous during the long wait. Eventually, the warrant officer set off towards the rear to fetch his company commander. As soon as he had left, German soldiers stood up and started to banter. ‘Rus! Komm, komm!’ they called. One soldier, a short man, bundled in many rags, clambered up on to the parapet of the trench and began to play the fool. He pointed to himself in an operatic parody. ‘Ich bin Offizier’ he sang.

‘I can see what sort of an officer you are,’ Dyatlenko retorted, and the German soldiers laughed. The joker’s companions grabbed his ankles and dragged him back into the trench. Smyslov and Siderov were laughing too.

Finally, the warrant officer returned, accompanied by three officers. The most senior of them asked politely what they wanted. Dyatlenko explained, and asked if they would be received according to international convention, with guarantees for their safety. Complicated discussions followed on detail – whether they should remove their snow suits and have their eyes bandaged – before they were allowed forward. After the officers on both sides had exchanged salutes, Smyslov showed the oilskin packet, addressed to Colonel-General Paulus. The German officers whispered urgently among themselves. The senior lieutenant then agreed to take the Soviet representatives to their regimental commander. The black blindfolds issued by the front quartermaster the day before had been handed back with the white flag, so they had to improvise with handkerchiefs and belts. All Siderov could offer was the blouse of his snowsuit, and when that was fastened round his head, the German soldiers watching from their bunker entrance burst out laughing. ‘Bedouin! Bedouin!’ they called.

The senior lieutenant led Dyatlenko by the hand. After a few steps, he asked, ‘with a smile in his voice’, what was written in the message to Paulus. ‘That we should surrender?’

‘I am not ordered to know,’ Dyatlenko replied, using the formula of the Tsarist army. They changed the subject.

‘Tell me please,’ said the lieutenant, ‘if it is true that a German writer called Willi Bredel has been in Platonovsky? He has been addressing my soldiers on the radio for ten or maybe fourteen days. He appealed to them to surrender, and swore that their lives would be spared. Of course, my soldiers just laughed at him. But was he really here? It was clear from his accent that he was from Hamburg. So was it really him or a record of his voice?’

Dyatlenko longed to reply. Bredel was indeed one of the Germans working for his section and he got on well with him. But if he gave any hint, then the lieutenant would have understood immediately what his ‘real job’ was. An unplanned diversion occurred at that moment. The ice on which they were walking was both uneven from shell fire, yet also polished by the passage of boots wrapped in rags. Dyatlenko fell, knocking down the lieutenant. Smyslov, hearing the commotion, shouted in alarm. Dyatlenko reassured Smyslov and apologized to the lieutenant. He was not afraid of a trick. ‘About a thousand prisoners of war had passed through my hands by then,’ he wrote afterwards. ‘I knew their psychology sufficiently well as a result, and I knew that these men would not harm me.’

German soldiers who came to lift the two fallen men slipped over in their turn, making a sprawling mass of bodies. Dyatlenko compared it to the Ukrainian children’s game called ‘A little heap is too little: someone is needed on top.’

The lieutenant kept up his questioning when the blindfold march resumed, then returned to the question of Bredel. Dyatlenko was less than frank. He said that the name was known to him and he had even read some of his books. Finally, the lieutenant warned him that they were coming to some steps.

The three truce envoys found themselves, when their blindfolds were removed, in a well-built bunker lined with tree-trunks. Dyatlenko noticed two sacks with spoiled grey grain, which they were trying to dry out. ‘That serves you right, you snakes,’ Dyatlenko thought. ‘You burned the Stalingrad grain elevator and now you have to dig food for yourselves out from under the snow.’ He also observed the coloured postcards and Christmas paper decorations still in place.

A senior German officer entered and demanded to know the authority for their mission. ‘The Stavka of the Red Army command,’ replied Dyatlenko. The senior officer then left the bunker, presumably to telephone. During the colonel’s absence, the German officers and Dyatlenko discussed Christmas celebrations. They then discussed pistols and the Germans admired Dyatlenko’s Tokarev. He rapidly surrendered it when the Russian truce envoys realized, to their great embarrassment, that according to international convention they should have left behind their personal weapons.

To maintain the fairly cordial atmosphere, Siderov opened the packet of ‘Lux’ cigarettes – what Dyatlenko called ‘general’s cigarettes’ – which had been specially issued to them to impress the German officers. ‘With great dignity, Siderov offered the packet to the Germans as if he had always smoked the best, and not makhorka.’ He asked Dyatlenko to tell them that this was his third war: he had fought in ‘the Imperialist War, the Civil War and now the Great Patriotic War’. Dyatlenko expected him to add ‘against German fascist invaders’, but in fact Siderov smiled and said: ‘And during all these three wars, I have never had the chance to talk to the enemy so peacefully.’ The German officers agreed and added that this little assembly consisted of the most peaceful people on the whole front. Conversation rather came to a halt after that. In the ensuing silence, they heard heavy firing. The Russians were horrified. One of the Germans dashed out of the bunker to discover what was happening. He returned with the accusation: ‘It was your people.’ Fortunately, the firing soon ceased. (The truce envoys discovered later that it had been Russian antiaircraft batteries unable to resist the temptation when German transport aircraft appeared overhead.)

Tension rose during the long wait for the colonel’s return. But when he came, it was not to announce as expected that a staff car had been sent from Sixth Army headquarters. He had, in Dyatlenko’s words, ‘a very different expression – like a beaten dog’. The junior officers, guessing what had happened, rose to their feet ‘as if a sentence was about to be pronounced on all of them’.

‘I am ordered’, the colonel announced to the Russians, ‘not to take you anywhere, not to accompany you, nor to receive anything from you, only to cover your eyes again, to lead you back, to return your pistols and to guarantee your safety.’

Dyatlenko protested most volubly. He offered, even though it was against his instructions, to give the oilskin packet to a specially authorized officer in return for a receipt.

‘I am ordered to take nothing from you,’ replied the German colonel.

‘Then we ask you to write on the package that you, in accordance with orders received from higher command, refuse to accept the letter addressed to your army commander.’ But the colonel refused even to touch the packet. There was nothing left, Smyslov and Dyatlenko concluded, but to allow themselves to be blindfolded again and escorted back. The same senior lieutenant guided Dyatlenko back.

‘How old are you?’ Dyatlenko whispered after they had set off.

‘Twenty-four,’ he replied. There were only a few years between them.

‘This war between our peoples is a tragic mistake,’ Dyatlenko said after a short pause. ‘It will finish sooner or later and it would be good for me to meet you on that day, wouldn’t it?’

‘There is no room for illusions in my heart,’ said the German lieutenant, ‘because before a month is up, both you and I will be dead.’

‘Did you Germans really think’, said Dyatlenko, ‘that Russia would let you spend a peaceful winter in warm bunkers?’

‘No, it was possible to assume from the experience of the past winter that you would launch an offensive. But nobody expected it on such a scale or in such a way.’

‘You told me earlier that your soldiers just laugh at the appeals of Willi Bredel.’ Out of professional curiosity, Dyatlenko could not resist ignoring his instructions to avoid topical issues. ‘But wasn’t he right when he spoke about your hopeless situation. Weren’t his appeals serious?’

‘Everything he said was right,’ the lieutenant replied. ‘But don’t forget one thing. When a war of two world outlooks is going on, it is impossible to persuade enemy soldiers by throwing words across the front lines.’

On reaching the trenches, the eyes of the three Russian officers were uncovered. Their pistols and snow suits were handed back. The two groups of officers faced each other and saluted, then the Russians, under Siderov’s flag, returned ‘through the white silence’ to General Vinogradov who was still waiting by the burnt-out tank.

Vinogradov led them back to the balka. The commander of divisional reconnaissance lost no time. ‘Siderov,’ he said, ‘quickly draw me a map of their defences.’ The other two truce envoys followed them into a bunker dug into the side of the balka and watched ‘our old man who spoke to the enemy so peacefully’, draw a map of their fire points perfectly. ‘I don’t know if he had been given this mission from the start,’ wrote Dyatlenko afterwards, ‘Or whether it was just his skill, but it transpired that he had been remembering everything.’ Dyatlenko and Smyslov then returned to front headquarters in the Willys staff car with the two generals, ‘sad and tired’ because their mission had been a failure and many men were to die for no purpose.

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